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It's not a mainstream film, but Like Someone in Love tells us no more about the realities of prostitution than Pretty Woman

Like Someone in Love by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami uses prostitution as a means to pursue its own ends: an analysis of identity and everyday role playing, without the slightest hint of smut.

Like Someone in Love (12A)
dir: Abbas Kiarostami

The lesson that audiences took away from the hit romantic comedy Pretty Woman was that prostitution was a viable way for a young woman to meet Richard Gere or his nearest available equivalent. All that soulless intimacy and the absence of most of the perks associated with more conventional jobs (health insurance or the use of a crèche) would be compensated for once a millionaire pitched up at the kerbside, offering a life of affluence and absolutely no beatings or crack cocaine.

It’s easy, not to mention enjoyable, to sneer at the Hollywood version of the oldest profession but prostitution isn’t handled with any greater depth in Like Someone in Love, which is as far from mainstream cinema as Gere is from humility.

This is the elliptical new film from the Iranian writer-director Abbas Kiarostami, working here in Tokyo with a Japanese cast and French and Japanese funding. Art cinema has always entertained a fascination with the prostitute, bewitched perhaps by her (and it’s usually a “her”) aspiration to separate desire and economics definitively; it’s the sort of emotional schism well-suited to a storytelling model specialising in the psychological. It would be naive to pretend that the potential for nudity doesn’t help or that the overlap has not been considerable between art-house audiences and what was once known as the “dirty mac brigade”. (I’m not sure what we call them now that dirty mackintosh manufacturing has joined the seemingly endless list of industries killed off by the internet.)

Like Someone in Love is chaste but it uses prostitution conveniently for its own ends – in this case, not romantic idealism but an analysis of everyday role playing. Any nastiness is blotted out; the film is tasteful to a fault. Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is a student coerced into moonlighting as an escort. Her boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), is oblivious, while the grandmother she was supposed to meet at the station has been left to fend for herself. It could be worse. The evening’s work for Akiko consists only of being driven to the apartment of an elderly writer, Wata - nabe (Tadashi Okuno), who engages her in conversation and serves her dinner. Talk about kinky.

The meat of the film lies not in this encounter but in the misunderstandings that arise from it. Kiarostami gives us fair warning that identity will be a slippery business when he opens the picture with a shot of several sets of customers in a bar. Common sense tells us that the conversation we can hear is not attributable to any of the people on-screen but that doesn’t stop the brain from trying to match sound to image.

This dislocation effect resurfaces occasionally during the movie. Miscommunication is rife. Granny leaves a string of phone messages that Akiko doesn’t retrieve until it is too late. Noriaki is so aware of the potential for deceit in a phone call that he sets Akiko challenges to ascertain her whereabouts. When Akiko reaches Watanabe’s apartment, the old man’s telephone seems to ring endlessly. Mobile phones were always interrupting tranquillity in Kiarostami’s 1999 film The Wind Will Carry Us and their bothersome presence in the new picture suggests that the director hasn’t yet found that elusive ideal network.

Examples of mistaken identity are rarely more extreme than the one that occurs in the second half of Like Someone in Love, in which Noriaki ends up asking Watanabe for permission to marry Akiko, having assumed that he is her grandfather. The same error is made by one of Watanabe’s neighbours. But a fatal air of smugness hangs over these scenes, as it sometimes can when an audience is so many steps ahead of the action.

This is in direct contrast to Kiarostami’s last film, Certified Copy, in which two apparent strangers turned out, as the story progressed, to have been married, possibly for many years. Even when that picture was over, the mystery surrounding the exact nature of their relationship remained unsolved.

Certified Copy was rather solemn but at least it erred on the side of the enigmatic. Like Someone in Love, on the other hand, is like a puzzle that takes an eternity to complete and yet still somehow contains too few pieces to be taxing.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 24 June 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Mr Scotland

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis